NY © TV

You'll have to put up with lots of dross to find the choice stuff in NYTV: By the People Who Made It, a windbag of a documentary airing on WNET December 14, about how the city was the making of television back when most television was made here. Producer-director Philip Marshall can't decide if he wants to trace the medium's technological and economic development (a fascinating story we see in driblets), celebrate its Golden Age (Milton Berle and Sid Caesar—now we know how Trotsky would have looked if he'd lived—are on hand), condemn its failure to uplift (lots of wistful blather about "culture," as if this ain't it), or indulge in dopey civic boosterism; even half kiddingly, it's inane to pair Newton Minow's overrated "vast wasteland" quote with a reminder that TV had moved to the West Coast by the time Minow said it. For more of that jocular touch, host Al Roker does the bulk of his commentary from inside various vintage TV sets, most of which make him look hydrocephalic.

Even so, for every fatuous moment—inevitably, the quiz-show scandal of the '50s gets termed "a loss of innocence"—there's a fun fact, like the news-to-me that both Hugh Downs and Mike Wallace launched their careers as game-show hosts. (Not hard to imagine with the genial Downs, but with Wallace, a frightening thought.) The many interviewees, including pretty much everybody you'd want to hear from, are generally sharp, although the jokes, unsurprisingly, are better than the pontifications—even Nipsey Russell made me laugh with his rendition of Ed Sullivan editing a script. While viewers may pine for some classic moments that only get described (why couldn't they dig up Merv Griffin singing the blues on a Sunday-morning religion show? Why leave us with that dream?), the few old clips we do see are enjoyable too. Among the best is a circa-1970 car commercial starring a very young Robert De Niro, which in one sense is more revelatory than any of his movies: man, is he short.

 
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